Pondering the exhausting (and rewarding) work of integration

My head’s super fuzzy today. So much buzzing around inside me, lots I want to share here but it’s so much effort to do so. Everything feels like an effort right now, even the smallest actions. I desperately want a clean house (or at least a neat one) but I consider it an accomplishment when I change out the empty toilet paper roll for a fresh one. I talked to a friend yesterday for two hours; my soul was fed, much processing was done and I was exhausted for the rest of the day.

It gets me down that I don’t know what happened to my motivation and my will power. And, I know that this process of trauma work, specifically integration, is literally changing my body right down to the cellular level. Not exactly light work that can quietly happen in the background. It requires establishing new habits like yoga and eating a diet that more consistently includes protein and nutrients that give my nervous system and brain enough of the materials they need to establish thousands of new pathways.

The purpose of all of this effort and neural rearranging is to live in my own truth. That’s a phrase that feels a bit tired but one I cannot avoid using because it’s actually brimming with meaning and potential. The name my mother gave me at birth derives from the Greek word, Aletheia, and the philosopher, Heidegger, wrote that it is the state of “unclosedness” or “unconcealedness”. I think of it as the intentional act of living true to myself. I spent most of my life concealing, both from myself and others, how deeply wounded I was by the abuses I experienced. At the same time, I was also constantly moving towards being more honest about who and how I was. That seems like a contradiction but from the time I was about twenty years old, I was actively committed to my healing journey. Up until recently, I couldn’t have reconciled the messy process that can be both a clinging to remaining hidden, while at the same time daily moving towards becoming “unconcealed”. Even now, it makes my head feel fuzzy when I write about it.

The English word, truth, comes from an Old English word that meant faith, faithfulness, veracity and covenant. My early connection to the natural world as a sort of foster mother and a wise and gentle alter both inspired faith that I could survive and was, against all odds, innately precious. When I was a teenager and in my early twenties, living in abusive situations, the rage against my perpetrators gave birth to the covenant I made with myself that I would do whatever was required of me to survive and someday thrive because that was the most poignant action I could take against the twisted violent men in my life. And I’ve kept that promise to myself and watched as those men grew smaller in the rear view mirror of my life, even as my own true Self looms large on the path before me.

I feel compelled to let everything of who I’ve been be stripped away and lain out around me. Perhaps that is what I’m doing right now and why it feels like such an agonizingly slow process. I want to walk, bare bones, amongst all that has been cut away, turn each feeling and way of being this way and that so I can decide if I want to sew it back onto my skeleton or replace it with something that serves me better. Meanwhile, I am left lean, vulnerable and raw. Perhaps that explains why most mundane tasks feel either irrelevant or impossible right now. Perhaps I can cultivate some compassion for myself as I do this work of picking the bones of Self and sort what is worth keeping from those things that need to be discarded. And then, perhaps, I can truly embrace being unconcealed.

**Final thoughts after letting all of this stew for a bit:
I was cleaning the kitchen after breakfast while listening to some Cat Stevens and I remembered that my therapist had asked me to notice three glimmers each day. (To read more about Deb Dana’s ‘glimmers’ click here.) Glimmers are what we experience when our nervous system is regulated and we feel safe and content. Noticing them helps to strengthen the neural pathways to that state and creates an atmosphere in which more glimmers will flourish. It’s been about a week since I’ve attended to my daily task of writing down at least three glimmers every day. As I was pondering this and recommitting myself to this practice, I was sweeping the kitchen floor and I suddenly recognized that the process of tidying and the motion of sweeping were creating a sense of calm and satisfaction. A glimmer! That led to this question: What if I can be curious about when mundane tasks feel good, rather than boring or required? Perhaps this is one path to establishing new motivations for doing the things I’ve been leaving undone.

My experience of Complex PTSD (part 1)

I am a forty-eight year old survivor of incest (and multiple other abuses) with complex PTSD. You probably already know what PTSD is but when you add the complex to that it means that the abuse was prolonged and very likely included more than one perpetrator. When PTSD is complex several symptoms are added to the list of what survivors experience. This may include: lack of emotion regulation, changes in consciousness (dissociation), negative self-perception, difficulty with relationships, distorted perception of abuser/s, and somatic symptoms that may include chronic illness.

‘Recovery’ can take years or a lifetime and doesn’t generally resolve the effects of trauma completely; more often, survivors learn over time to live with and accept some symptoms. Take me, for example. I’ve been in and out of therapy my entire adult life and have been doing intensive trauma informed therapy for the past year and a half and I’m just now living in a body that’s in a mostly regulated state about two thirds of the time. That’s a tremendous shift and I’ve worked so hard to achieve it, but the one third of the time I spend in a disregulated state is still a living hell. I’m just better at tolerating, surviving and moving through it.

I don’t want to speak for others with C-PTSD so I’ll try to address my own experience with healing without making generalizations. There are as many unique manifestations of trauma as there are trauma survivors.

Since my ex-husband and I separated in January, I’ve been inhabiting my own space and working ceaselessly to learn self-care so I can feel more grounded and experience peace and joy more often. As a child living in a home with a father who was both raping me and an unpredictable alcoholic, the self-care I learned was very different from what my friends without an abusive parent were learning. I will never forget going to a new friend’s house for a sleepover and watching her wash her face over the sink and splashing water about everywhere. It had never occurred to me to wash my face and I certainly wouldn’t have left water all over the counter.

I was having to learn skills to survive and I didn’t recognize that until years later. While my friends were learning to co-regulate & self-regulate, I was learning hyper-vigilance. This meant that rather than blocking everything else out as I played, I actively listened to the tones of the voices around me, the force used to close a door (was it casual, slightly amped up or aggressive?), the vibration feet made as an adult walked towards my room (soft and sneaky, sleepy or unrhythmic and pounding, By the time I was 5 or 6, I could read sounds and vibrations to determine whether I was in danger and, if I was, how much.

I’m finally at a place in my life in which I spend very little time in the heightened, all hands on deck, state. Even so, as I began thinking about what I learned growing up as a result of my trauma, I felt my stomach sink into that wriggly place, arm pits begin to sweat and my hands start to quiver just a bit. My memory is most certainly linked to the part of my nervous system that is active when I experience hypervigilance. I also recognize that being able to be aware of my physical state and experience is another accomplishment I’ve made. It still feels messy and super uncomfortable but it’s part of integrating my trauma and the work of recovery.

“If you’re not angry, you’re either a stone or you’re too sick to be angry.” -Dr. Angelou

Thismorning, I went down a rabbit hole on YouTube and ended up watching a show that pairs very different cultural icons for the purpose of a meeting of minds and hearts. I watched an elderly Dr. Maya Angelou spend an afternoon with comedian Dave Chappelle. (you can be inspired by this meeting here) From the moment it began, I could feel the heat of emotion flush my face and that strange, burning sensation that happens just before you cry truly heartfelt tears. I admire both of these ‘icons’ and being a witness to such authentic conversation (their respect for one another was obvious) touched places that are right now raw and tender for me.

At one point, Dave asked Dr. Angelou how she dealt with having so many of her friends assassinated in the ’60s; wasn’t she angry? Her response:
If you’re not angry, you’re either a stone or…you’re too sick to be angry. You should be angry. You should be angry. You use it. You never stop talking it.

I felt so validated, I had to pause the video as she was in the midst of saying it. I shy away from the righteous anger I feel about so many things, both personal and cultural. And I have certainly been too sick at times to be angry. I won’t even try to separate the physical from the mental sicknesses because I know now they are too intertwined to be teased apart. And here’s this wise, powerful woman, who experienced rape as a child saying straight up about trespasses: You should be angry. You should be angry. Use it. Never stop talking it.

Knowing what I do about Dr. Angelou, I assume that when she says to use your anger, she means to harness it for personal and cultural change. I’ve never been secretive about my trauma but I feel myself moving towards a place of greater vulnerability with it. Can I find a way to harness my rage at my father and the society that allows these things to happen so that I can be one of many driving forces towards change? The first twenty years of my life were given to surviving. the second twenty something have been dedicated to personal healing. Perhaps I’m moving towards channeling my experience to have a new purpose, one which lifts up others who are struggling and feeling the isolation that so often accompanies being a survivor.

Dave Chappelle uses his money and platform to acknowledge and alleviate suffering (if you think he’s just a raunchy comedian, google his altruism) and Dr. Angelou so openly shares her own experiences, thoughts and feelings, that anyone can feel she’s speaking or writing directly to them. Some of that was born of traumatic moments and feelings of anger, but ultimately it comes from a place of love. I am so touched by that and I want to take what I’ve been through and what I’ve learned and use my love to lift up others.

Symbols in ink on skin

I spent yesterday in a weird slump I couldn’t account for. I tried multiple things to bring myself a sense of joy or at least acceptance but I ended up falling asleep last night feeling down. It’s my habit to wake before dawn so I can enjoy the quiet and stillness of those early hours and especially so I can connect with the moon and the stars and watch the gradual shift from night to day. Just now, as I was doing that, I remembered that today is the day I’m getting a tattoo to honor all the work I’ve done as a survivor and in particular, the past year and a half. Apparently, I’m having a lot of feelings about it.

Getting ink on the the skin of my forearm means I will forever wear the symbols of my strength and journey in a place where all the world can see it. Just as I confronted my father about his abuse and its effects in the recent letter I wrote him, getting this tattoo is, in part, about confronting greater society with the epidemic of violence and abuse that is still too often a taboo subject to broach. And I feel similar to the way I felt after I sent the letter to my father; I can feel my nervous system amping up in response to the act of refusing to keep the secret so many people don’t want to see, because if they see it, they’ll feel guilty about not doing more to help end the cycles of abuse too many people grow up in. And perhaps my experience of being down yesterday was the frightened child part of me feeling the weight of that secret that was thrust upon her with threats of consequences that would destroy what little life she had left. I had doubts, I thought about cancelling the appointment, saying it was too expensive. But I think underneath those thoughts, were the fears that I didn’t deserve to give myself the empowering experience of looking down at my own forearm and seeing the extreme extents I’ve gone to in order to survive and heal.

I haven’t come this far to turn away from honoring what I’ve experienced and how brilliantly, if often messily, I’ve existed in the midst of so much pain and a nervous system generally incapable of resting in states of safety. Certainly I’m not going to let the very structures of shame and doubt that my abusers helped create inside of me be what stops me from celebrating my successes on this journey. I have not shied away from doing the work, not even when the notion of doing a particular aspect of it elicited a feeling that doing so would destroy me. Some part of me always had faith that I could withstand being destroyed and eventually come to a place in which I was no longer in a constant state of disregulation or depression.

Now that I have the power to notice when I’m in a disregulated state and can use skills to shift that, I am indeed ready to acknowledge the journey I’m on and celebrate the work I’ve done to get to this place of mostly being able to hold my own in my life and the world. Right now I’m feeling my belly flutter and I’m sweating even while sitting in a chilly room. I’m aware of the thoughts, doubts and feelings as they arise. I have made a playlist to listen to while on my way to and from the tattoo artist’s shop and I’m going to go and do some empowering yoga before taking a shower and getting ready for this next big step on the very hard road I’ve traveled.

Writing with intention

I had a friend once, who was first a teacher and then a mentor. He was my writing teacher, and later my Senior Seminar professor, at the college I attended when I was twenty-four and I felt instantly drawn to him because we shared the belief that synchronicity can help us make meaning out of our experiences. Of course, he practiced awareness of synchronicity from his deeply held Buddhist beliefs and I from a Jungian/witchcraft perspective but we understood that those systems of belief were but the ground we each stood on as we experienced and investigated synchronicity. In the last exchange we had before he took his own life, he told me to keep writing.

Up until now I’ve utilized writing primarily as a way of processing my trauma and understanding how my experiences have shaped me. Back when my friend was simply my favorite teacher, I had big plans. I would get my doctorate in psychology and go on to write important books about trauma. That dream was just another victim of my trauma, as not long after I started my undergrad I began having an increase in complex seizures. I pushed myself through my Master’s degree and did write a thesis about whether dreams had an impact on the healing process of incest survivors (according to my research, they often do), but I made the difficult decision to stop my formal education there because my oldest child had been born and I had decided to leave their alcoholic father. Writing became something I did in my journal until I started this blog

Recent shifts in my healing process have led my therapist to suggest that I consider writing a book about my experiences someday. My first reaction to this suggestion was to think, “How could I ever write anything coherent about my healing process when I have so many gaps in my memory because of my trauma?” Then, during yesterday’s session, my therapist and I were talking about things I could do to help restore my nervous system to a regulated state amidst all the uncertainty in my own life and the world right now. I was grasping at ideas: yoga, playing guitar, connecting with nature and close friends. And then I heard myself say, “I’d like to try writing when I’m not in a heightened state.” My therapist instantly latched on to this possibility and then said a lot of very complimentary things about my writing. I could hear my inner voice spitting out doubt and then it was as if I could hear my dear mentor/friend saying “Keep writing”.

With all that having been said, here I am making an effort to write with intention, rather than as something I feel compelled to do because nothing else will have the desired effect. I do believe this kind of writing could further my healing and perhaps I have something to offer fellow survivors of trauma. I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about and questioning the nature of trauma and healing; it’s truly what I think about most often and I’m incredibly curious about how people survive until they can begin healing, as well as the similarities and differences in each individual’s process. Ian, if your spirit is still connected to me from beyond the veil of death, I’m going to keep writing.

*Very briefly, I’d like to say something about synchronicity because throughout my life it has been one of the things which allowed me to feel connected to the world around me and often revealed meaning which brought hope when I needed it most. The word, synchronicity, was coined in the 1950’s by psychiatrist and theorist, Carl Jung. ‘Syn’ being together and ‘chronos’, time. He observed how inner and outer events that are not casually connected sometimes occur simultaneously and elicit the experience of meaning. His definition for the word was “meaningful coincidence”.